Only some of this is about Jeremy Clarkson

Try to forget one man and his silly comments.

This was going to be a post about Jeremy Clarkson. About how I like Clarkson: as right-wing writers go, he's rather good. (He's no PJ O'Rourke, no matter how desperately hard he tries, but he makes me chuckle. I hereby ask for my "The Left" membership card to be rescinded immediately.)

This isn't a case of: "First they came for the Clarksons, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a jowly denim-clad petrolhead oaf roaring half-baked grandstanding silliness to needle-dicked losers who like cars." This is just a silly man saying silly things, exaggerating them to make them sound sillier.

Wouldn't you know it, he's got a book out as well; I'm sure this entirely coincidental controversy might shift a few units. The more people get outraged, the more of them will probably be sold, and the more money he'll make. See how Clarkson nourishes himself by licking your salt tears of outrage; see how your hate has made him powerful.

I was going to expand on all of that, but then I saw the news, and Clarkson's comments being the lead item on the news, and it depressed me entirely. Thousands upon thousands of people all over the country got together yesterday to battle against the Government, yet because one person says some tedious trolling deliberately controversial load of old guff to flog a few books, that's shifted the entire focus of public debate. Doesn't that depress you?

This suits The Right (well, if they can use capitals and huge overgeneralisations, I don't see why I can't, so I'm using "The Right" to mean "everyone I don't like, from Ronald Reagan to Ronald McDonald, tainting everyone with the actions of the people I dislike the most") very well indeed. They might like to make the feeble suggestion that 30 November was a damp squib, but it wasn't -- it was popular, powerful and impressive.

I was out there on the picket lines, seeing the numbers at rallies and hearing about the passionate reasons why moderate workers had decided to take action. It wasn't because some nasty spectral bully in charge of their union had forced them into it; it was because they were fed up with what had been handed out to them, and why the public sector had been scapegoated and picked on by the Coalition to pay extra pensions that wouldn't even go into their pension pots.

These people weren't the usual leftie troublemakers stirring up disaffected workers; these were hardworking taxpayers who'd had enough of being squeezed dry.

These were men and women who simply did not buy the Government's line that we were all going to have to do our bit in these troubled times -- and I heard time and time again the comparison made between the pensions of those who had caused this crisis, those MPs who had failed their country, and those who were now being targeted as having 'gold-plated' futures. People aren't buying the Coalition's line, and that should be of real concern to them; it's not just the strikers and their natural sympathisers who have worked that out, either.

I had written, before 30 November, that the strikes risked drawing a wedge between similarly badly-treated groups of private and public sector workers unless they could appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. Looking at it now, I don't think those fears were justified. I heard many speakers and union members talking about the need to make private sector pensions fairer, the need for private and public sector workers to unite against the common enemy in Government, and the desire to ensure this didn't become a conflict between groups of employees.

Let's focus on that. Let's focus on the success of 30 November, and what it means for the future. The public don't trust the Government, despite the cheerleading for the Tory agenda and the hissing at the strikers from the usual sections of the press. Striking might upset some, but it has the support of many. Forget one man and his silly comments -- the debate about Clarkson is just what the Government would like to happen, to draw attention away from their miserably poor attempts to demonise strikers.

Don't let them get away with it. Otherwise, you should be taken outside and shot in front of your kids.

 

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.